Taliban Capture 10th Afghan Provincial Capital During Week-Long Bombardment

The Taliban captured a provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, the 10th time insurgents have faced a week-long bombardment in Afghanistan as the United States and NATO prepare to fully withdraw from the country after decades of war.

The militants raised their white flags printed with a famous Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, just 150 kilometers (93 miles) southwest of Kabul. Sporadic clashes continued at an intelligence base and an army facility on the outskirts of the city, two local officials told The Associated Press (AP).

The Taliban posted videos and images online showing them in Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province.

Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated requests for comment from the AP during days of clashes. However, President Ashraf Ghani is trying to organize a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, warlord militias and US air power ahead of the US and NATO withdrawal at the end of the month.

While the capital of Kabul has not been directly threatened in the advance, the astonishing speed of the offensive raises questions about how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the fragments of the country it has left. Eventually, the government may be forced to withdraw to defend the capital and just a few other cities, as thousands of those displaced by the fighting have fled to Kabul and now live in open fields and parks.

Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani told the AP that the two bases outside the city remain in the hands of government forces. Mohammad Arif Rahmani, a Ghazni lawmaker, similarly said that the city had collapsed before the insurgents.

The loss of Ghazni marks another strategic setback for Afghan government forces. Ghazni is located along the Kabul-Kandahar highway, a main highway that connects the Afghan capital with the southern provinces of the country. That could complicate resupply and movement of government forces, as well as squeeze the southern capital.

The week-long bombing by the Taliban has already seen militants seize nine other provincial capitals across the country. Many are in the northeast corner of the country, pushing Kabul from that direction as well.

Airstrikes in Lashkar Gah

Meanwhile, fighting broke out in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities in the Taliban heart of Helmand province, where encircled government forces hoped to hold on to that provincial capital.

A suicide car bombing on Wednesday marked the latest wave targeting the regional police headquarters in the capital. By Thursday, the Taliban had seized the building, some policemen surrendered to the militants and others retreated to the nearby governor’s office that is still in the hands of government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a Helmand lawmaker.

Niazi said he believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded members of the security forces, but did not have a casualty breakdown. Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it back, he said. Other Taliban advances have seen militants release hundreds of their members over the past week, bolstering their ranks as they seize US-supplied weapons and vehicles.

Niazi criticized the ongoing airstrikes against the area, saying civilians were likely injured and killed.

“The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves and the government, paying no attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes,” he said.

With Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the United States Air Force is believed to be carrying out a series of strikes to support Afghan forces. Aviation tracking data suggested that B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones, and other U.S. Air Force aircraft participated in the night-time fighting in Afghanistan, according to the security firm with Australia-based The Cavell Group.

It is unclear what casualties the US bombing campaign has caused. The Qatar-based US Air Force Central Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP on Thursday.

The success of the Taliban offensive also calls into question whether the insurgents would ever rejoin the protracted peace talks in Qatar aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration, as the West hoped. Instead, the Taliban could come to power by force, or the country could split up in a factional struggle as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989.

In Doha, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to jointly warn the Taliban that they could once again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. . Khalilzad also plans to meet with the Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting continues with no signs of abating.

Multiple battle fronts have stretched the government’s special operations forces, while regular troops have often fled the battlefield, and violence has pushed thousands of civilians to seek safety in the capital.

The latest assessment from US military intelligence is that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure in 30 days and that, if current trends continue, the Taliban could gain full control of the country in a couple of months.

( Jowharwith AP)

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